What’s after graduation?

Times Staff Writer

IS he the next John Travolta or Johnny Depp, or just another teenage fad, as ephemeral as Hula-Hoops, “Scream,” “Dawson’s Creek” and Leif Garrett? That’s the billion-dollar question hanging over 19-year-old Zac Efron, the pimple-free star of Disney’s “High School Musical” juggernaut.

Hollywood woke up this past week with a case of whiplash. Sure, everyone with a child -- particularly a girl child -- has had some awareness of High School Musical Mania, generally lumping it in with Hannah Montana-mania, Cheetah Girls-mania, Webkinz-mania, tween phenomenons that have evoked passionate devotion among their followers. For grown-ups and groovsters, those fads exist in an alternate pop-culture universe, profitable for sure but without the global panache of more muscular, older-skewing brands like “Spider-Man” and “Harry Potter.” But the sheer numbers of “High School Musical 2’s” opening weekend audience -- $33 million -- has reverberated around town . . . aahhh, if only each of those viewers were paying $10 apiece. And then there are the 5 million or so audience members who’ve tuned into the first “High School Musical” every one of the 24 times it’s aired on the Disney Channel.

For better of worse, Efron, he of the swivel hips and evaporating eyebrows, is the breakout star. The guy who just a few weeks ago wouldn’t be on any casting director’s short list has suddenly zoomed into the rarefied climes of Emile Hirsch and James McAvoy, right behind the king of the 20-year-old set, Shia LaBeouf, star of “Transformers” and Spielberg’s designated It boy. LaBeouf’s asking price is already in the range of $8 million to $10 million. An eclectic cross-section of Hollywood insiders think Efron should get a cool $5 million for “High School Musical 3,” the theatrical version of the franchise, which Disney is hoping to make pre-strike -- i.e. in the next nine months, before a possible Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strike shuts down Hollywood.


Efron declined to comment for this article, and although contract negotiations are still ongoing, sources say Efron is being offered a salary closer to $3 million, not $5 million, for the follow-up, which focuses on senior year at East High. Whatever the price, he’s still perceived as a steal. “Because without him, they don’t have a movie,” says one top talent agent who doesn’t work at CAA, home to Efron’s management team. “He’s the reason why they’re going to sell tickets for the opening weekend. That’s a bargain even at $5 million, just for DVD sales alone. Plus they owe it to him.”

“Zac was generally the star of ‘High School Musical 2.’ He drove the story, and he clearly drove the movie alongside Ashley [Tisdale] and Vanessa [Hudgens]. He’s the BMOC. If there is a first among equals, I would say that Zac would be that,” says Richard Ross, president of the Disney Channel, though he adds, “It’s very much an ensemble. Zac would be the first to say it himself. One of the magical factors is that there is a tremendous relationship among the cast that developed on the first movie and was maintained on the second.”

Ross declines to elaborate on the development of the new movie, except to say, “I can’t imagine that Zac would not be a prominent part of it. I can certainly say on my own behalf, I’d love to have him on board and headlining.”

Efron, who has a stack of offers on the table, is also slated to do the comedy “Seventeen,” for New Line, a kind of spin on “Big” or “Back to the Future,” in which a 38-year-old becomes young again and attends his school -- with his own children. “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman, who’s producing, developed it specifically for him, and Efron’s salary, according to one studio source, is slightly less than $1 million.

He’s also attached to the remake of “Footloose,” which in its previous incarnation featured Kevin Bacon. Another project chasing him is “Bridge and Tunnel,” written by Greg Berlanti and to be produced by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal.

Making ‘Hairspray’

According to sources, Efron received only about $100,000 for his role as teen idol Link Larkin in “Hairspray,” and director Shankman, now his biggest booster, didn’t even know who Efron was when he auditioned last February.

“He came in flip-flops and Bobby Sherman hair. He smiled and did his audition. I smiled and said, ‘Eh, forget it.’ My sister [Jennifer Gibgot], who’s my producing partner, called me and said, ‘Are you out of your mind? He’s going to be the biggest TV star.’ She read me the numbers and said, ‘I want you to go to the magazine rack. I saw him literally on the cover of every single young magazine.’ She said, ‘You get him back in here. You make him good, and you must put him in the movie.’

“I brought him back and worked with him,” Shankman says. The director told Efron that his smile was “too sweet and soft” and said, “Stop smiling. Give me smoke in the eyes.”

Producer Craig Zadan says that by casting Efron they were able to reshape the role of Link for the movie. “The role of Link is a narcissistic, conceited character on stage. It’s a little cartoony. In the movie, by casting Zac, because Zac has so much warmth and soul, we were able to go in a different direction, give [the character] a conscience.”

Shankman and Zadan and his producing partner, Neil Meron, credit Efron with bringing in much of the film’s repeat business, the tween girls who have driven its box-office take to more than $104 million in the U.S. Says Meron, “They’re coming back nine times to see Zac and swoon. It’s like Frank Sinatra.”

“In a land of spectacular young male future-star flameouts, Zac’s been a nice surprise for the business and moviegoers,” adds producer J.C. Spink, who’s made such films as “Monster-in-Law” and TV shows like the Disney hit “Kyle XY.” “Since I got here in ’97, celebrity culture has shifted tremendously -- people have gotten to be stars before they’ve had the chance to act, and the level of flameouts. . .” he says with a groan.

Indeed, in the last couple of years, Hollywood has embraced and then quickly upchucked out such talents as Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Paul Walker, let alone someone like Brandon Routh, who’s career has not ignited even though “Superman” was a hit. Although Efron might currently grace the cover of Rolling Stone as America’s heartthrob, Luke Perry once garnered the cover of Vanity Fair in a pic by Annie Liebowitz. That was before Perry’s movie career sputtered out with “8 Seconds.”

The road ahead

Although there are plenty willing to get into the Zac Efron business, many others wonder whether the quality that draw the teeny-boppers -- the kind of androgynous, sex-free cute factor -- will be exactly what prevents Efron from broadening his fan base to include, most crucially, boys and men. Almost all great stars appeal to men and women.

“Whenever girls are so into someone, boys go in the opposite direction and hate that person,” says one agent. “He’s not helping himself because he looks like he’s plucking his eyebrows and spending too much time on his haircut. It’s not what guys want to see. If you put him in a movie, you’re guaranteed every grade-school girl will want to see it, and you’re guaranteed that you could not drag a boy to see him. He’s going to be in that conundrum.”

“They’re purposely looking for a guy’s movie for him,” says another producer. “I think it’s hard to be a guy and be a romantic comedy star or romantic lead only. The way you define success is box-office receipts, and actors who carry a gun end up with higher box office.”

Others ask more bluntly: Does he have the acting chops to transcend teeny-bopper adulation? Leonardo DiCaprio’s teen fan base helped drive “Titanic” to become the highest-grossing film of all time, but the young star had already earned an Academy Award nomination for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Johnny Depp had a patron in quirky director Tim Burton, who put him in movies like “Edward Scissorhands” that allowed him to establish his cool credentials.

Some are not sure that sticking to the genre -- the musical -- that made him will be good for Efron’s long-term career prospects. “If I had my druthers, he would stop doing musicals for a little while,” Shankman says. “I want him to continue to expand as an actor. It’s too hard to connect with male audiences if he keeps doing musicals.”

One agent is snarkier -- about Efron even returning to the screen version of “High School Musical.” “That’s about as smart as making ‘From Justin to Kelly’ after ‘American Idol.’ It won’t hold up as a feature unless they get really lucky. He has ‘Footloose,’ which is a really stupid idea. It’s playing into exactly what he’s doing. He should go do something really different.” Or alternately, cash out on his appeal while he’s adored by the fickle adolescent audience. “Make hay while the sun shines. Do what you think your fans want you to do, over and over again, and once it’s done, you can not have to work for the rest of your life. Of course, your career as an actor will be over.”

Disney’s Ross is less convinced that Efron needs to rough up his image with an indie film to expand his audience cred. “History has shown a path where you have to go to this dark place to be able to show that you’re an adult actor. That’s been the case for a lot of actors. Maybe that’s the case for him, but Zac has created such a fan base that people will go many places with him.” After all, Ross points out, one in 10 Americans saw “High School Musical 2” opening weekend.

The Disney chapter

Still, even Disney, the patron saint of Efron’s career, is rapidly making plans for a world without Zac. At last count, the original “High School Musical” had officially reached 200 million viewers worldwide, but that was the number trumpeted before it opened in China on Sept. 17. Disney is fast apace plotting local-language productions, with local stars, and has already been running a televised talent show in both Argentina and Mexico to cast the Latino versions of Troy and Sharpay. The new theatrical film reportedly will introduce new characters that can continue the singing and dancing after the original crew graduates. By boosting the ensemble quotient, Disney will be able to avoid a replay of Duff-gate, the implosion of the “Lizzie Maguire” franchise after a negotiating spat with star Hilary Duff.

But for Efron, the teenager from Arroyo Grande who just two years ago was being driven to auditions by his mother, the moment is now. He’s popular, wholesome, untainted by the rampant scandal that torched the career of Disney’s last sensation, Lindsay Lohan. Big-name directors are going to sniff a lot less dismissively when his name is broached.

“He’s going up, up, up,” says casting director Joseph Middleton, who once cast Efron in a pilot for director Doug Liman. “Everything is pretty much open to him. There’s no stigma attached yet. You’re going to have those directors for whom he’s going to have to prove himself. He may not be offered the part, but he will have the opportunity to read for the part, and he’s a really good actor.”